Toronto Catholic school parents want board to drop mandatory language classes

Parents at four Toronto Catholic schools are calling on the board to drop mandatory language classes, arguing they're arbitrary, expensive and distract from the core curriculum that the province has insisted schools follow.

Trustee spearheading effort to give parents more say on controversial program

Children at Immaculate Conception Catholic School in North York studying Spanish during the regular school day before the pandemic. (Lisa Xing/CBC)

Parents at four Toronto Catholic schools are calling on the board to drop mandatory language classes, arguing they're arbitrary, expensive and distract from the core curriculum that the province has insisted schools follow.

A local trustee with the Toronto Catholic District School Board (TCDSB) has taken up their cause with a motion that would give parents greater choice when it comes to the international languages (IL) program.

"During the pandemic, when every minute of instructional time has arguably become increasingly valuable, parents are increasingly questioning why this program is mandatory." Daniel Di Giorgio, who represents Ward 10, wrote in an email to CBC Toronto.

Di Giorgio's ward includes all four of the schools — St. Francis Xavier, St. Fidelis, St. Bernard and St. Matthew — whose parent councils have asked the board for more leeway to drop the international languages program.

"I think it might not be the greatest use of time or resources; the time of our kids, or the financial resources of the board," said Deanna Wu, whose five-year-old attends St. Matthew.

"I just don't see it being really valuable. Are they really learning anything? Is she able to talk to her Portuguese friends in Portuguese words? Not at all."

Parent Deanna Wu questions whether her daughter is getting any real, lasting benefit from the mandatory international languages program she takes. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

About a quarter of the TCDSB's 165 elementary schools have mandatory 30-minute language classes several days a week. Depending on the predominant ethnicity in their neighbourhood, students are taught Italian, Portuguese, Ukrainian or a handful of other languages.

That's been the case since the early 1980s, according to Trustee Maria Rizzo, who spearheaded the board's effort to introduce mandatory international languages.

She says any proposal to drop the classes is wrong-headed.

"I'm passionate about it because I grew up wanting my name to be Mary instead of Maria, in the time that we were immigrants in this country and in this city," Rizzo said.

"And I think it's important for people to know that they belong, that our schools and classrooms represent the population, the diverse population in the city, and that this is so integral to making sure that they are included."

TCDSB Ward 5 trustee and former board chair Maria Rizzo helped establish the international languages program as a newcomer to the board in the early 1980s. She says languages should be considered core subjects. (Christopher Katsarov/Canadian Press)

But Brian Arruda,  who has two daughters at St Matthew and who sits on the parent council there, said parents want the school's instructors to focus on improving the grades of the students.

"Our test scores at this school aren't great," he told CBC Toronto. "Many of the parents here think that time would be best served by teaching these core subjects."

Core curriculum subjects include things like social studies and math.

Arruda, an elementary school teacher in the public system, says he doesn't know how his Catholic school colleagues cram so much into a single school day.

Brian Arruda, a teacher with the public board and a member of the St. Matthew Catholic School parent council, says his children, Ellie, left, and Avery, right, would benefit more from subjects like math and science than the international languages program. (Brian Arruda)

"There's a lot to cover in literacy, math, science, history and geography," he said.

"I find it challenging at times, so I couldn't even imagine as a teacher at a school with international languages, how they actually manage to cover all of this."

Calls for lower threshold

At present, 90 per cent of parents at a particular school must agree to open the discussion before the board will consider a request to drop an IL program.

Di Giorgio's motion, which goes to the board's student achievement committee on Thursday ,May 6, calls on trustees to lower that threshold to 67 per cent.

In a statement to CBC Toronto, Di Giorgio said parents have a right to expect 300 minutes of core curriculum learning every school day — and that does not include a 30-minute international language class.

As a teacher himself in the public school system, Arruda wonders how TCDSB teachers manage to cover all the core subjects in a school day that's half an hour shorter than his, because of international language instruction. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

He also points out the Ministry of Education is no longer funding the program, which "places an additional financial burden on the TCDSB as a whole."

But Rizzo questions the assertion that international language instruction is not a core subject.

"It could be any part of the core curriculum," she argued.

"It could be drama, with a performance in Italian of Beauty and the Beast; it could be a film festival in different languages that the students participate in ... It could be learning geography about the mountains in the Philippines or the seas in Europe."

The province had covered the costs of international language instruction when the classes were offered as half-hour extensions to the regular school day.

But in 2018, teachers' unions argued that their members  — who do not teach languages — were being forced to stay an extra half hour every day without pay.

An arbitrator agreed the set-up was unfair and ordered that the non-language instructors be compensated. The province responded by telling the board it would no longer pay for any instruction beyond the traditional 3 p.m. dismissal bell. 

That meant the TCDSB's 44 schools that offered IL would have to shoehorn the language classes into a regular 8 a.m. - 3 p.m. school day, or drop them altogether.

The board opted to continue with the mandatory language classes, which have cost between $7 million and $9 million a year.

Di Giorgio says the board is playing a shell game with its financial allocation from the Ministry of Education at the expense of other programs.


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